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10 Oct 2019

Mediocre Mayhem: Joaquin Phoenix Is Stunning as the ‘Joker’—but the Film Around Him Is Disappointing

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Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.

Joker, a new take on DC Comics’ Clown Prince of Crime, will go down as one of the year’s big missed opportunities.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for his Hangover movies, apparently got the green light to do whatever he wanted with the Joker mythos. In a feat of perfect casting, he managed to get Joaquin Phoenix to sign on for the title role. This was a chance to tell a dark origin story from Joker’s point of view.

Phillips blew this chance. Phoenix is otherworldly good as Arthur Fleck, a severely troubled clown and standup comedy wannabe (and momma’s boy) with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Phoenix physically and mentally disappears into the part—to the point where it’s reasonable to become concerned about the actor’s well-being.

He accomplishes this in a film that has a major identity crisis, in that it wants to be a DC movie utilizing a DC icon without really being set within DC lore. Could that have worked out OK? Sure, but the movie builds to a conclusion that frustratingly teases, but only teases, the great Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. Why not do a film that tells the story of The Dark Knight Returns entirely from the Joker’s perspective, instead of dancing around Batman lore in a way that feels like the filmmaker is merely trying to be cute and clever? The experience of watching this left me unfulfilled. Phillips borrows many elements from comic books, Bernie Goetz, Death Wish and Martin Scorsese movies, resulting in a muddy work that feels oddly rote given the crazed and wonderful performance at its center.

When we first see Fleck, he’s dressed as a clown, spinning a sign and generally having a good time. He promptly gets his ass kicked; we then see him in therapy and living in poverty with his quirky mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck slowly but surely starts to lose all sense of his humanity as he grows into a criminal monster.

We’ve seen all of these plot mechanizations before, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Heck, Phillips even casts a game Robert De Niro to play a talk-show host who winds up being a nod to Miller’s David Letterman riff, David Endocrine, in The Dark Knight Returns. At its most derivative, the screenplay echoes A Beautiful Mind, filmed in a way that feels like a hackneyed Shyamalan twist.

Is the violence too much? That depends upon your personal threshold for fake mayhem in movies. I, for one, was appropriately shocked at times by how visceral the movie got; it goes well beyond your typical Avengers movie or the playfully crazed violence of something like, say, Deadpool. The violence in this movie is ugly and extremely downbeat; it will leave you with knots in your stomach.

Phoenix does a thing with the hysterical laughing early in the movie, where he shows Fleck struggling because it hurts his throat and challenges his smoker’s lungs. As the film progresses, it appears that the Joker’s hysterical laugh muscles are strengthening—as if in training for his criminal career when that laughter will cause no pain, and flow out of him with no need for lozenges afterward. Touches like these, as well as the depiction of Gotham as a city reminiscent of pre-Giuliani New York City in the 1970s (I assure you folks, that place was a hellhole), are impressive.

This impressive work is done in by paint-by-numbers plotting. Fleck’s standup comedian aspirations don’t make a whole lot of sense; they simply make for a convenient plot device to reach the movie’s predictable finale. Everything to do with Fleck’s mother plays like a poor man’s Psycho. For a movie that was supposed to be an entirely original approach to the Joker, nothing really feels original other than the spark of creativity Phoenix brings to the enterprise. It’s boringly familiar.

Joker won the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival? That voting panel must’ve been on mushrooms.

Joker is playing at theaters across the valley.

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